America’s Military Exercises in Korea Aren’t a Game
To drill or not to drill? It shouldn't even be a question.
President Donald Trump came into office promising to rebuild the U.S. military, having warned as a candidate that “when America is not prepared is when the danger is by far the greatest.” He was right. But the Monday confirmation that planning for an annual U.S.-South Korea military exercise is suspended indefinitely suggests the president has perhaps forgotten his own advice. Ulchi Freedom Guardian and other exercises allow U.S. forces to train alongside their South Korean counterparts and, at times, multiple other partner nations.
Trump has decided, however, that training is too “provocative” for North Korea and just plain too expensive. He’s wrong on all counts. Walking away from a major training exercise with South Korea sends a terrible signal to U.S. allies and leaves our forces less prepared while saving little money in the process.
Since the president previewed this decision in his June 12 press conference, Washington has been abuzz with the usual fallout of questions, recriminations, and outright confusion that accompany the president’s surprise announcements. Did the Defense Department and U.S. Forces Korea know this was coming? (No.) What about South Korea or Japan? (Also no.) Does the president intend to halt all bilateral exercises with the Republic of Korea or only the largest annual drills, such as Foal Eagle and Max Thunder? (Unclear.) So widespread was the public confusion, even among Republican leaders, that Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Vice President Mike Pence’s office engaged in a bizarre, public Twitter debate over whether the vice president had privately promised legislators the exercises would continue.
For the average American who has never seen or participated in a U.S. military exercise, it may be difficult to decipher how much any of this matters. After all, are a few “war games” really that important when stacked up against the prospect of historic peace? That, of course, is the narrative the president and his team would like you to believe. It’s also wildly misleading. To understand why, it’s necessary to break down some of the misinformation and confusion surrounding Trump’s statement.
First, let’s put to rest the misinformed notion that some U.S. exercises are “war games” while others are “readiness exercises” that provide training for U.S. forces. All exercises are, to different degrees, readiness exercises. They serve one primary purpose: to ensure that U.S. forces are prepared for any mission in front of them. In South Korea, this means being sure that U.S forces are ready to “fight tonight” to defend against any potential aggression on the Korean Peninsula. Without exercises, our forces will be less effective in a conflict, and more may be injured or killed than would have been with sufficient training and practice.
Maintaining this readiness is not an option; it is a statutory responsibility for the secretary of defense and service secretaries. And it requires regular and routine practice and training. The president loves to tout the power of the U.S. military. He’s warned on several occasions that U.S. military options are “locked and loaded” in Korea. But the reality is that the only reason these forces are so ready to go is because they exercise regularly. This is one reason we and so many other Pentagon officials fought hard to protect U.S. training and exercises in Asia, especially in the wake of sequestration.
Canceling some or all of U.S. Forces Korea’s military exercises would eventually have a significant impact on the readiness of the 28,500 U.S. forces (not 32,000, as the president erroneously suggested) on the Korean Peninsula. Perhaps not immediately — it might be possible to cancel a year of our large-scale exercises without too much damage — but the evidence would soon be clear.
We should also set aside any suggestions that being prepared to deter and respond to North Korean aggression is somehow less necessary now that diplomatic negotiations are underway. No matter what Trump says, North Korea remains just as powerful a military threat today as it was before the Singapore summit. They still have an intact nuclear arsenal and missile inventory that could reach anywhere in Asia, and probably the United States. They are suspected to have a stockpile of chemical and biological weapons. And they have the fourth-largest military by personnel in the world. None of this has changed in any way, and it’s unlikely to significantly change in the near future. It would be the height of folly to ignore this continued threat and to leave U.S. and South Korean forces less prepared to address it. Yes, we should all hope that the current diplomatic negotiations succeed, but the U.S. military has an obligation to be prepared should diplomacy fail.
This leads to one of the more dubious assertions the president made in his press conference: that U.S. exercises are “provocative,” and therefore should be shelved. For those of us who spent years pushing back against North Korean and Chinese complaints about the U.S. military presence in Asia, this was a particularly stunning line to hear coming from the U.S. president. Joint exercises with South Korea are defensive in nature, stabilizing, and entirely legal under international law. Moreover, they not only ensure that U.S. and South Korean forces can respond to any North Korean provocations, they also help deter them. Maintaining the credibility of the U.S. military plays an important role in helping U.S. diplomacy succeed. It provides the necessary deterrent to remind North Korea of the consequences of walking away from the table.
Equally important, U.S. military exercises demonstrate the strength and the value of our alliance with the Republic of Korea and other allies, another important point of leverage the president seems to all too frequently ignore. By training and exercising side by side, the United States and South Korea have built trust, interoperability, and the personal relationships that have sustained our alliance for decades. These relationships and the trust we’ve built don’t only matter militarily; they have played a central role in sustaining our alliance through repeated political upheavals, disagreements, and economic disputes over the years, which the authors of this article have experienced firsthand. The U.S. alliance with South Korea, like our broader network of Asian alliances, also plays a stabilizing role in Asia. It has helped prevent further conflict on the peninsula and in the region for over six decades. We should not allow North Korea or China to suggest otherwise.
Additionally, despite what the president claimed, canceling these exercises will not save the United States a lot of money. The funds the Pentagon would spend on this year’s exercises in Korea were already appropriated by Congress in the defense budget. Canceling the exercises won’t automatically put the money back in the taxpayer’s pocket; the Pentagon will simply shift the funds elsewhere.
What’s particularly ironic is that restoring the readiness of U.S. forces through exercises such as these was one of the key promises the administration made in pushing for the Pentagon’s budget plus up this past year. Should exercise cancellations continue beyond one year, it’s also possible that the cost of maintaining readiness for U.S. forces on the peninsula could even increase. Many of the U.S. forces stationed in Korea would need to go elsewhere to obtain the training they require. While we can’t know the exact costs this would entail, it almost certainly would be far more expensive than training in South Korea.
All this is not to say that military exercises are sacrosanct and should not be adjusted under any circumstance. Indeed, the United States canceled the joint exercise Team Spirit in the mid-1990s as part of the lead-up to North Korea signing the bilateral Agreed Framework. Exercises can certainly be adapted or tailored to avoid specific points of concern for North Korea, such as flying strategic bombers over the peninsula. However, negotiations with Pyongyang should not require wholesale cancellation of all exercises en masse, nor does it require the president denigrate their utility. Adjusting exercises should be part of a negotiation with North Korea, not a unilateral concession for which we get nothing in return. These are the decisions we need to make alongside our South Korean allies, and as a part of a careful strategy to maximize U.S. diplomatic leverage.
The people of the U.S. military make amazing sacrifices to defend the security and freedom of their fellow countrymen and our allies. During our time in the Department of Defense, we witnessed the incredible capabilities of the U.S. and South Korean militaries and how regular training allowed them to work together effectively. They deserve the resources needed to do their job, and the ability to train. Readiness saves lives and ensures that our military remains the most awesome, feared fighting force in the history of the world. While negotiations with North Korea are certainly important as well, they should not come at the expense of the readiness of our forces or the security of our allies.
Abraham M. Denmark is director of the Asia program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia from 2015 through January 2017. Prior to that position, he was senior vice president at the National Bureau of Asian Research.